Books

Adam Thirlwell's 'The Escape' Is an Elegiac Farce

Adam Thirlwell

Adam Thirlwell's priapic protagonist makes his escape to Bohemia.


The Escape

Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux
ISBN: 0374148783
Author: Adam Thirlwell
Price: $25.00
Format: Hardcover
Length: 336 pages
Publication Date: 2011-03
Amazon

Adam Thirlwell made his debut in 2003 with Politics, a novel whose combination of graphic sex and self-conscious cultural and literary allusions divided opinion. In The Escape he generally eschews the latter, but sex is something of a preoccupation for its protagonist, elderly philanderer Raphael Haffner. Indeed, when we first encounter him, he is hiding in a wardrobe, carrying out an act of voyeurism as a young woman performs for him with her uninformed lover. It's an outlandish opening, but it sets the tone suitably as we embark on a story that is farcical yet elegiac.

Haffner is a retired Jewish banker, who has worked in London and New York. However, the events of The Escape take place in the more confined space of a spa town in an unnamed European country. Thirlwell includes asides about this location’s communist past and describes the Alps looming in the background of the town: these geographical and historical references suggest that Haffner has come to Slovenia. Recently widowed, he is there to claim ownership of a villa that belonged to his Italian wife.

The anonymity of the setting is clearly very deliberate. For Haffner, the site of the family villa is unimportant; he has no other ties to the area, and seems disinterested in the place. Haffner perceives Eastern Europe as an ill-defined ‘Bohemia’, and thus his visit to the unnamed spa town acts as the culmination of a pursuit of the bohemian that he has been engaged with for much of his life. His marriage has been replete with infidelities, but while our impression of Haffner is that he would have preferred the life of an unattached libertine, he has never been capable of leaving his wife. His journey to ‘Bohemia’ acts as his escape, then – although it is a doubly ironic escape, since his wife is now dead, and he is here to inherit her estate.

The Escape is driven by the conflict between Haffner’s competing motivations. First, there is his attempt to go through the complex and – literally – foreign process that will enable him to take ownership of the villa; and second, there is his dogged pursuit of women, which seems to be a compulsion rather than a desire. He drifts around haplessly, sometimes in search of enlightenment, more often sex. At one point he finds himself in a church, on another occasion he wanders into a strip club, only to lose interest having been led into a backroom by one of its girls.

While in his more usual priapic mode, Haffner becomes embroiled with two women who he meets at his hotel. There is one hand the doughty middle-aged Frau Tummel, and on the other the much younger Zinka, the girl on whom he spied from inside the wardrobe. Frau Tummel decides that she is love with Haffner; Haffner decides that he loves Zinka. The result is an awkward love triangle that Thirlwell cannot resolve without introducing some bizarre comic moments.

Haffner is described as a ‘squalid Don Quixote’, and The Escape is improved at around its halfway point, when he is provided with a Sancho Panza figure in the form of his grandson, Benjamin. Benji has flown in from an orthodox seminary in Israel, hoping that his grandfather can help him to mediate between his increasing religious zealotry and his burgeoning love life. He is a fitting foil to Haffner, and his seriousness earths the farce of Haffner’s antics.

In Politics, Thirlwell was an unashamedly intrusive narrator, who would frequently slip in asides about the Surrealists, Milan Kundera, or Joseph Stalin. In The Escape, we are also constantly aware that someone is telling us Haffner’s story, though the position of this narrator is less clear-cut. There are frequent asides here, but the majority of these are about incidents from Haffner’s earlier life. The implication is that these stories within the story have at some time been related by Haffner to the narrator, who is now in a position to pass them on to the reader.

This allows Thirlwell to do away with the authorial intrusions of Politics; indeed The Escape seems a more traditional, less unfashionably postmodern, novel. Nonetheless, as if in a nod towards the constant namedropping of his first novel, he appends a list of sources to this book, listing the writers who are apparently quoted in The Escape, but without revealing whereabouts in the text these citations are hidden. It’s an eclectic collection of names, ranging from Brecht and Nabokov to the French hip-hop group Saïan Supa Crew. Evidently, this is not only a bricolage of events from Haffner’s life, but also a composite of recent cultural histories.

The narrator describes himself as ‘just a friend’, who is recounting events that happened a decade ago. Now Haffner is said to be dying, and so the narrative seems to take the form of the second-hand reminiscences of a man on his deathbed. At one point we are told of the night, many years ago, when Haffner proposed to his wife. Earlier that evening he had kissed another woman, and as he drives home with his almost-fiancée, he does so ‘wishing he could not remember how the girl in the French Pub had kissed him’. The awkwardness of this novel’s comedy means that it’s not too much of a stretch to presume that the whole story may in fact be about the moments Haffner would rather not remember.

8

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.

Books

Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.

Music

PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.

Film

'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.

Music

Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.

Film

Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.

Music

Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.

Music

The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.

Music

Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.

Music

Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.

Music

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.

Music

'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.

Music

Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.

Television

Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.

Film

Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.

Music

The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.